Bought your child a new device? Here’s how to protect their mental health

Article featured in The Telegraph by Naomi Greenaway, DEPUTY EDITOR, STELLA MAGAZINE

Read original article here

Scrabble, Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit – that’s what I wanted to buy my children this year. But in reality, their wish lists were more Apple stocklist than 1990s Argos catalogue. Many parents will now have shiny new devices wrapped and ready for kids to open on Tuesday.

But buying an electronic device comes with a level of trepidation that ordering item 383/6754 on p854 never would. Perhaps it’s because, unlike the bicycle that might end up in the shed over winter, or this year’s wonder toy, which will probably run out of appeal (and batteries) by Easter, the screens we give our kids at Christmas are likely to have more profound and far-reaching effects. Games consoles, iPads and smartphones can end up encroaching on so many other elements of children’s lives – schoolwork, family time and sleep included. But most worrying, perhaps, is the power they can also wield over their mental well-being.

It’s an issue that’s been on my mind of late, as my daughter recently entered her last year of primary school, which according to the national norms means she has come of smartphone age. (Although this festive season – thanks to the majority of parents in my daughter’s class making a pact not to give our pre-teens phones until the end of the school year – it’s one device that’s been off the agenda.) Countless recent studies have linked the rise of smartphones and social-media usage with anxiety and depression in tweens and teens, the rates of which have skyrocketed recently.

It’s something that mental-health charity Young Minds, one of the causes chosen for this year’s Telegraph Christmas appeal, is working hard to understand. Many factors are at play when it comes to young people’s well-being, says Emma Thomas, the charity’s CEO, but the rise in social media is not to be ignored.

And it’s not only children whose mental state tips over the diagnosable line about whom we need to worry. It’s all those who are just missing that little spark of happiness, too.

Just a few weeks ago, England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, addressed the Commons and spoke of the ‘avalanche of pressure’ children and teenagers feel under to be popular and successful on social media. And a recent groundbreaking study by the University of Sheffield found increased social-media usage causes lower happiness levels in children. ‘We found that as the time spent chatting on a social network increased, there was a comparable reduction in happiness reported across several different areas of young people’s lives, which included their appearance, their family, their school and also their life overall,’ explains the study’s lead author, childhood psychologist Dr Philip Powell.

But most parents of teens don’t need the experts to highlight the power of smartphones and social media. One friend, mother to an 11-year-old boy who recently received his first phone, admits it has been the most challenging time of her parenting life. ‘Since he’s had his phone, his mood has been constantly up and down,’ she says of her son. ‘If he puts his phone down for five minutes, he feels like he’s missing out. Often the chatting goes on until midnight, then when he gets to school the next day he still feels he’s missed out. It’s heartbreaking to see how it pulls him down.’

‘My son’s groups get quite nasty,’ says the mother of a 13-year-old. ‘They post far ruder things than they would say, and my son can’t escape it even at home.’ Another mother describes how her 15-year-old daughter falls victim to FOMO (fear of missing out). ‘She’s a sensible girl but it’s constant,’ she says. ‘She’ll see a picture of her friends somewhere she’s not been invited to and it can change her mood for the whole weekend.’ Her 12-year-old son, meanwhile, spends every waking minute on his phone. ‘If I could turn back time and set boundaries from the start then I would. I want my son back.’

‘Once screens are in hands it’s much harder – although not impossible – to get into good habits,’ says Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time. ‘But ideally set boundaries and expectations before giving a device, so it doesn’t become a source of conflict.’

Discussing screen-time boundaries on Christmas morning, however, doesn’t feel very ‘ho-ho-ho’, which is why Rachel Vecht, parenting expert and founder of educatingmatters.co.uk, advises talking these over before the big day: ‘Make any reservations known beforehand – the potential for homework or family time to suffer – and ask children what guidelines they might follow. Get them to make the case. And you don’t have to ruin the surprise. Keep it hypothetical.’

So what are these habits and boundaries that will help your children live digitally healthy lives? Read on…

Stick to this one rule

‘My top tip if you’re a parent giving a phone or device for the first time is that it should be switched off in the evening and charged downstairs, not in bedrooms,’ says Sarah Berman, an ambassador for CEOP (the Government’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency) and a trainer at Young Minds. Lack of sleep has a big impact on well-being and physically switching off also gives teens and tweens the psychological switch-off they need. ‘There has to be somewhere that feels safe and private,’ says Prof Sonia Livingstone, a social psychologist at LSE, who has advised the Government on digital safety. Research also shows that blue light affects sleep, so turn off 30-60 minutes before lights out.

Have these conversations

From sexting to FOMO, it’s good to talk. Being honest about our own feelings, says Berman, helps children open up about theirs, and being non-judgemental and supportive is key. Janis-Norton’s advice? Be proactive rather than reactive: bust the myths of Instagram perfection before they sign up, talk about sexting before they have a serious boyfriend or girlfriend and discuss FOMO before they hit the peak socialising years. ‘Ask, “If you saw pictures of your friends on Instagram at a party you didn’t know was happening, what would that feel like?”’ It won’t make them immune to feeling left out, but it will create better coping mechanisms when those feelings do occur – and make it more likely that they’ll turn to you if they find themselves in trouble. ‘Research has found that teens who have a more satisfactory relationship with their parents are less susceptible to FOMO,’ says Janis- Norton.

Focus on their offline lives

‘Encourage balance in their lives,’ says Sarah, because any activities that boost self-esteem offline, will be mirrored online. ‘Higher self-esteem makes them less likely to be adversely affected by any negatives in their online lives.’

Don’t go 007 on social media

Should you follow your kids on social media and check their phones? ‘Lots of kids feel comforted by that,’ says Prof Livingstone. But going undercover, she believes, is a big no. ‘The whole principle of the parent-child relationship is trust, so snooping can do much more damage than good,’ she says. ‘They could end up creating secret accounts, change passwords or get a second phone.’ If you have serious concerns, ask for access.

Find the screen-time sweet spot

We know too much can increase irritability, hyperactivity, aggression and even depression, but how much is too much? ‘A certain amount of screen time may be positive for well-being – enabling communication, creativity and engagement,’ says Dr Powell. ‘But too much becomes negative. It’s called the Goldilocks effect.’ According to Prof Jean Twenge, author of a landmark study on this topic, the sweet spot is one hour per day for children aged two to five and similar limits – perhaps up to two hours – for school-aged children and adolescents. Prof Livingstone advises parents to be thoughtful when it comes to switching off. ‘Lots of games, for example, have an internal drama. If you walk away in the middle, there might be consequences in terms of relationships with friends as well as the prowess of your avatar,’ she says, and likens it to reading a book. ‘It’s reasonable to allow someone to read to the end of the chapter.’

Lower their dependency

‘Part of the way to handle screen time with less dependency is for children to earn it,’ advises Janis-Norton. That can be through chores, homework or music practice, but should also be linked to behaviour. ‘You get a lot of dopamine from electronics, which is why it’s so easy to become dependent on them. But when you get a dopamine hit without having to earn it, your brain processes the activity in the reptilian part of the brain, and it’s more addictive.’

Sign on the dotted line

Decide boundaries together, then write a contract, sign it and hang it on the fridge so it doesn’t get forgotten, advises Vecht. ‘Managing your and your child’s expectations will reduce conflict and help them to form healthy habits. Consider time limits and switch-off times at night, designated screen-free times in the week and zones in the house, guidelines around who they accept as “friends” on social media, what pictures they post and websites that may be out of bounds. Deciding these guidelines together will help them have a more positive digital experience.’ She adds, ‘It’s important for parents to commit to good habits, too. If you decide that dinner times should be phone-free, set the right example.’

The top three signs of mental health problems in your child
Dr. Pablo Vandenabeele, Clinical Director for Mental Health at Bupa explains:

As well as everyday worrying, those suffering with anxiety and can often come across restless and nervous and find it hard to concentrate.

Anxiety isn’t just about how someone feels mentally; it can cause a behaviour change and other physical symptoms too, which may include experiencing a shortness of breath or chest pain, feeling muscle tension and unexplained aches and pains. In some cases, your child may experience nausea or stomach problems
or loss of appetite.

It can lead to your child becoming tired easily but having trouble sleeping well. If you believe that your child might be struggling with their mental health, your GP should be your first point of call.

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